An investigation of carbon flows from forest soils, in relation to climatic warming
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Rises in anthropogenic CO2 emissions are now widely acknowledged to be responsible for changes in the global climate, with potentially disastrous consequences if these rises continue unchecked. Although knowledge of ecosystem responses to climate change has improved, there are still large underlying uncertainties regarding their response to warming. Of all the ecosystems with the potential to mitigate rises in CO2, forests are arguably the most important because of their huge land area and store of carbon. A large proportion of the carbon stored in forests is found in the soil, and it is the response of this soil carbon to temperature that is the main determinant of a forest’s ability to act as a carbon sink, or indeed source. Understanding the response of soil carbon flux to temperature, as well as the contribution of soil carbon flux to the carbon balance of forests as a whole is crucial in helping to improve modelling approaches. In this thesis I first examined the temperature response of old and new soil organic carbon from a Sitka spruce plantation under controlled laboratory conditions. Both the old and new soil organic carbon showed similar temperature sensitivities after prolonged incubation at 20 °C, thus implying a similar response to increasing temperatures. Using a variety of different methods (root intensity, meshing and stable isotope analysis) I then studied the responses under field conditions. These methods showed that autotrophic respiration was responsible for up to 50 % of total soil respiration, and was more sensitive to temperature than heterotrophic respiration. Finally, I compared the contributions and determinants (particularly temperature and moisture) of soil respiration fluxes to ecosystem fluxes at a temperate (Sitka spruce) and Mediterranean (Maritime pine) forest. Temperature was found to be the dominant driver of soil respiration fluxes at the temperature forest, whilst soil respiration was limited by moisture at the Mediterranean forest. Statistically significant relationships between net ecosystem productivity and soil respiration (and the stable isotope signature of soil respiration) were found at both forests, indicating a close coupling between above-ground processes and soil respiration.